Omaha attorney Steve Grasz repeatedly assured members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that he would adhere to judicial precedent and not allow his personal views to interfere with his judgment if he is confirmed as a nominee to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Grasz, whose nomination by President Donald Trump to a seat on the federal bench attracted unusual fire from the American Bar Association, responded to intense questioning during his confirmation hearing.
Judges have a duty to "say what the law is, not what it should be or what they might like it to be," Grasz said in answer to a question posed by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
"Personal preferences and beliefs of a judge should have no role," Grasz said.
A judge needs to "apply precedent (and) rule fairly and impartially," he added.
It would be "my solemn obligation and duty to faithfully apply the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court," Grasz assured Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Grasz, who served as chief deputy attorney general for Nebraska from 1991 to 2002, told Sen. Ben Sasse that he would "set aside the role of advocate" and "apply the law fairly and impartially in spite of past opinions."
Questioning by members of the committee pointed to a clear partisan divide, with Grasz encountering praise along with some early expressions of support from Republican senators and challenging questions from Democratic senators who honed in on his personal anti-abortion convictions, conservative religious and social views, and partisan political connections.
With Republicans in the majority, a split-vote recommendation for confirmation appeared likely to be sent to the floor.
Filling in for Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Sasse chaired the hearing.
Sen. Deb Fischer told the committee — she is not a member — that Grasz is "highly respected by his colleagues" in Nebraska.
Fischer described the ABA's negative evaluation as "biased, baseless (and) filled with innuendo" that she equated to "political character assassination."
Two individuals who played key roles in the ABA assessment have direct ties to Democratic politics, she said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island subsequently pointed to the 14-0 vote by the ABA assessment committee and the fact that the ABA has given "qualified" or "well-qualified" grades to nearly all judicial nominees of Trump, as evidence that Grasz's ranking is "hard to ascribe to partisanship."
Both Fischer and Sasse highlighted an earlier statement by Deborah Gilg, who had been former President Barack Obama's U.S. attorney for Nebraska, stating Grasz "has always enjoyed a reputation for honesty, impeccable integrity and dedication to the rule of law."
Gilg also suggested Grasz "possesses an even temperament well-suited for the bench," an assessment that runs directly contrary to the ABA's stated concerns about his temperament.
Sasse read into the record a statement by former Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson that said Grasz is "capable of putting what personal views he has aside when appropriate" and "I expect him to follow the law and the facts (rather than) personal views."
Several times, Grasz assured the committee he would adhere to the pro-abortion rights precedent set by Roe v. Wade, which he described as "a clear, existing and binding precedent" established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Answering questions from several Republican senators, Grasz said he was "asked repeatedly for my opinions on social issues, including abortion" during an ABA interview in Omaha.
The interviewer "repeatedly used 'you people'" in questioning him, Grasz said. When he asked what that meant, Grasz said, they were "identified as conservatives and Republicans."
Grasz said he was asked repeatedly about his views on abortion and 2nd Amendment gun rights.
"Apparently, they don't like that you're pro-life," Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said.
"In my second interview, that was made very clear to me," Grasz said.
Grassley said a representative from the ABA was invited to testify at the hearing, but could not attend and has been scheduled for an appearance later this month.
Following the hearing, ABA President Hilarie Bass said the organization conducts "independent, nonpartisan peer evaluations" of every federal judicial nominee and it "does not take into consideration a nominee's philosophy, political affiliation or ideology."
In reviewing Grasz, she said in a written statement, committee members interviewed 207 lawyers, judges and others who have worked with him in various capacities, some of them for decades.
The ABA has evaluated 45 judicial candidates nominated by Trump and scored 43 of them as "qualified" or "well-qualified," Bass said.